A Tale from the Tombs of Gerringong

29 Oct

moonLike many of the festive holidays inherited from the northern hemisphere, Halloween does not rest comfortably in Australia. Here, bright sunshine late into the warm evenings replaces the early darkness of crisp northern nights.

When Halloween rolls around, Australians are thinking less of bats, vampires and zombies, and more about spring carnivals, surfing and the Melbourne Cup.

However, I am a child of Michigan, where Halloween is celebrated at least as fervently as anywhere else in the world and possibly more so. As I watch the full moon rising out of the Pacific I feel an almost overwhelming urge to eat candy corn and carve pumpkins.

But candy corn and thin-fleshed carve-able orange pumpkins are hard to find around here. So what is an ex-pat Michigander to do?  Perhaps it is time to visit a cemetery and find spooky solace amongst the headstones.


Some headstones from the Araluen graveyard, 1 August 2009

Photographing headstones is a surprisingly popular pastime; I know of many people (including myself) who photograph these fascinating markers of past lives.They are redolent with information about the people they commemorate to be sure, but they also say a lot about our culture and community, our sense of aesthetics, and our deepest beliefs about the nature and meaning of life and death.

Photo by Christine Caldwell

Photo by Christine Caldwell

In a recent conversation with my sister-in-law Christine, she told me of her recent visit to the Gerringong cemetery, and mused on the way old headstones often reference each other. For example one headstone in the RC section [1] for an Irish immigrant who bore ten children reads JOHANNA, BELOVED WIFE OF EDWARD BOURKE A NATIVE OF CY TIPPERARY IRELAND WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE 4TH FEBRUARY 1886 AGED 54 YEARS LEAVING A HUSBAND & TEN CHILDREN TO MOURN THEIR LOSS SWEET JESUS HAVE MERCY ON HER SOUL EDWARD BOURKE HUSBAND OF ABOVE AND SAME COUNTY DIED 15TH OCT 1915 AGED 86 YEARS AND THEIR SON EDWARD DIED 2nd DEC 1893 AGED 21 YEARS RIP.” 

I find it interesting that he is referred to as ‘husband of above’ when ‘husband of Johanna’ only required carving two additional letters. Though perhaps this was to avoid also carving ‘a native of Cy Tipperary Ireland’ again. After all, a stone tablet only has so much space, and words have to be chiseled large and deep to withstand the ravages of time and clime.

Photo by Christine Caldwell

Photo by Christine Caldwell

Another headstone nearby reads “Sacred to the Memory of JEREMIAH HANRAHAN NATIVE OF COUNTY TIPPERARY IRELAND WHO DIED AUG. 18TH 1882 AGED 50 YEARS Also MARIA BELOVED DAUGHTER OF THE ABOVE DIED MAR. 23RD 1887 AGED 22 YEARS And ELLEN WIFE OF THE ABOVE BORN COUNTY TIPPERARY DIED OCT. 13TH 1899 AGED 73 YEARS RIP.”  By this headstone and the words ‘of the above’ we learn of a woman who lost her husband when she was 56 and her daughter when she was 61, then lived on for twelve more years before her time came and she went to join them.

But one particular example of this ‘follow on’ phenomenon she showed me was particularly intriguing: two lavishly ornamented marble monuments placed side-by-side and dedicated to the memory of Reverends Michael McGrath and Patrick Clarke. Rev. Clarke’s monument tells of how he died “at the same time and place” as Rev. McGrath, and Rev. McGrath’s monument tells a tragic tale of being “drowned while bathing at Kendall’s Beach Kiama” on January 13th 1883.

The story begins in January 1883, with the imminent return to Europe of the second Archbishop of Sydney, Roger Bede Vaughan, who had been enthroned in his position since 1877 after the death of the first Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding. Before leaving Australia, Archbishop Vaughan decided to undertake a visitation to the southern parts of his diocese as far south as Cooma. His tour of the Shoalhaven was attended by large numbers of Roman Catholics, who could not know that their journeys to see the Archbishop in person would be coloured by tragedy.

Vaughan and his entourage were greeted warmly in Kiama on Thursday, 11 January by the young priest Patrick Clarke from Nowra, who was acting as temporary priest of the Kiama church. Rev. McGrath, also from Nowra had ridden up to meet the Archbishop and to assist him with his further visitations. The next day, Friday, was free of appointments as the men took their rest. McGrath and Clarke along with Father Patrick Ryan, the parish priest of Albion Park[4], decided to go for a swim in the waters at Kendall’s Beach.[2]

While ultimately Ryan decided not to go in and instead continued on walking along the beach and bluffs, Clarke and McGrath did go in. Unfortunately, the rocky spot they chose was beset with dangerous rips and undercurrents.  Clarke, who couldn’t swim, was swept into the choppy waters near the rocks. McGrath, a strong swimmer, attempted to swim out to him and bring him ashore, but failed, and despite Father Ryan raising the alarm when he found them in strife, and the valiant efforts of a resident doctor and farmers, both were lost.

Photo by Christine Caldwell

Photo by Christine Caldwell

“A sad story indeed. Two faithful and zealous priests – lovable and beloved, pure-minded and noble-souled men, who had come from their own dear land to this new one of ours to do God’s work – rising in the morning in all the vigour of youth and health, going out amidst brightness and sunshine, and carried back dead in the evening to the chapel in which they had offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
Freeman’s Journal  20 Jan. 1883 [3]

Their bodies were retrieved with ropes, and as they lay side by side overnight in the Ss Peter and Paul church of Kiama, there was much dissent about whether they should be laid to rest in Kiama or Nowra. Ultimately, Archibishop Vaughan interceded and suggested that they be interred at the Gerringong cemetery overlooking the harbour. This was greeted as an acceptable compromise by all parties, and the two men’s bodies were taken to Gerringong.

The shock of losing two well-loved young priests at once, combined with the Archbishop’s presence and the crowds that had assembled to see him, meant that the funeral was attended by a throng of mourners. According to the parish history noted by the St Michael’s Catholic Parish, Nowra, “the funeral procession to the Gerringong cemetery, stretched for half a mile and included, as well as hundreds of men on foot and on horseback, every type of vehicle from stately coach to humble farm cart.”[2]

And here McGrath and Clarke rest to this day. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Shoalhaven, here is a map that shows the relative positions of Nowra and Kiama, and the Gerringong cemetery.

It only leaves one more note to say in closing: the Archbishop who presided over the funerals of these two unfortunate men could not know that he himself would die only 7 months later at the age of 49 from a weak heart.  And the words he spoke over their bodies would be quoted over his own: “Called away when, as it seemed, their life-work was but beginning, they did not live their lives in vain.”


Gerringong cemetery photographs by Christine Caldwell, no alterations have been made to the photographs.
Araluen cemetery photos by Sabrina Caldwell, other than resizing for web use, no alterations have been made to the photographs.
Moon photo by Sabrina Caldwell, cropped out of a black background, resized for web use.

[1] Location in Gerringong Cemetery according to Australian Cemeteries index at accessed 20 October 2015.
[2] Nowra Parish History.  Accessed 29 October 2015.
[3] Two Priests Drowned. Accessed 29 October 2015.
[4] Graves Footnote to Tragic Drowning.;jsessionid=7AD38B9E2278A865333336FE67A0D234?sy=afr&pb=all_ffx&dt=selectRange&dr=1month&so=relevance&sf=text&sf=headline&rc=10&rm=200&sp=brs&cls=18901&clsPage=1&docID=ILL140408984F01NATAQ  Accessed 29 October 2015

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14 responses to “A Tale from the Tombs of Gerringong

  1. Sarah's Attic of Treasures

    November 2, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    This is wonderful. I love to visit old cemeteries. Happy Blogging in 201.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      November 2, 2015 at 12:54 pm

      Thanks Sarah, yes, aren’t they great to visit! I especially like the headstones that tell the tale of a husband and wife laid to rest together after a long (and hopefully fulfilling) life.

      • Sarah's Attic of Treasures

        November 2, 2015 at 7:05 pm

        So many of those within a few months of each other as well.
        I cry at all the children’s graves as well.
        There is so much history in places like these.

  2. Beauty Along the Road

    November 2, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I, too, am fascinated by grave stones, especially older ones, from a century ago or more. In Germany, where I grew up, graves were lovingly tended and turned into mini-gardens. On Sunday afternoons, the whole family would often go for a walk and visit family graves, paying tribute to the ancestors and making sure the graves looked well taken care of.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      November 2, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks! Yesterday we drove past a beautiful old cemetery at Cobargo, NSW filled with tall stone markers and no doubt telling many interesting tales. Couldn’t stop to photograph then, but I will be making a return trip!

  3. NansGuide

    November 2, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    What a sad story. Two young men gone, just from going for a swim. A reminder of how dangerous the beaches can be, especially for those not aware of it.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      November 2, 2015 at 6:59 pm

      It would have been a very sad and dramatic event, wouldn’t it? Two priests who were no doubt held in great affection by so many people, and for it to happen when everyone was gathered together and learned of it at the same time (not so common in the mid-1800s!) Thanks for visiting and for your thoughtful comment Nan!

  4. Gradmama2011

    November 4, 2015 at 12:49 am

    I absolutely love this site, and I will be back soon to study it some more. My grandfather was from Grafton, on the east coast of Australia, but as he ran away from home on a sailing ship at 16, and I never got to spend any quality time with him as a child…so all the information is several times removed. I think the town he was from would be on this map, but beow the bottom. 🙂

    • sabrinacaldwell

      November 4, 2015 at 9:02 am

      Thank you for your wonderful compliment! Made my day. Interesting to hear about your grandfather; he must have been quite the adventurer. You must wonder about how he spent his life – I know I would.
      Cheers, Sabrina

      • Gradmama2011

        November 4, 2015 at 10:16 am

        he ran away because his Dad was mean to him, according to family lore. He worked on ships for a few years then met and married my grandmother in Buffalo NY. I wish I had gone to Australia when I might have beenn able to afford it. :-))

      • sabrinacaldwell

        November 4, 2015 at 10:46 am

        I drove through Grafton once a long time ago on the way to Brisbane. I remember it as a beautiful place, but it would have been very small and rural in your grandfather’s time. I’m thinking that perhaps life on a homestead (which is likely) would be pretty grueling work, but I don’t think life as a sailor would have been exactly a piece of cake either.

      • Gradmama2011

        November 5, 2015 at 1:53 am

        his father was mayor of the town where they lived, my aunt verified that by contacting the city clerk a number of years ago. Maybe grandpa just wanted to be a sailor. Thatxs the thing about family lore, all contributors add their own spin. 🙂

  5. Judith Murphy

    October 21, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    After visiting the kiama history society many years ago I traced my ancestors to be Edward and johanna Bourke whose grave stone is pictured above.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      October 21, 2016 at 2:49 pm

      How interesting! I find genealogy fascinating because of the amazing stories it tells. Thank you for letting me know.


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